Belted Kingfisher

Megaceryle alcyon

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 28, 2009
  • Jeffrey F. Kelly, Eli S. Bridge, and Michael J. Hamas

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Belted Kingfisher.
Adult female Belted Kingfisher with Rainbow Trout fry, Black River, AZ, July

; photographer Rick and Nora Bowers

This species account is dedicated in honor of John Foote, member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Administrative Board.

The Belted Kingfisher, one of the most widespread landbirds in North America, remains poorly studied. Throughout the continent, it inhabits diverse aquatic habitats where it typically perches over clear open water before plunge-diving for prey-chiefly fish, but also other aquatic animals such as crayfish. Undigested remains of such prey are regularly regurgitated as pellets, which fall beneath fishing and roosting perches. By studying these pellets, some information on seasonal diets can be determined without collecting birds or directly observing their foraging behavior.

Although the Belted Kingfisher breeds at northern latitudes, and occasionally winters there if open water is available, most individuals migrate, some as far south as northern South America. Solitary except while breeding, both males and females of this species vigorously defend their territories along shorelines of lakes or rivers throughout the year. They do this with strident vocalizations, especially a reverberating mechanical rattle, and by aerial chases. Indeed this kingfisher's Rattle Call is given at the slightest disturbance, and people are likely to hear this bird before seeing it.

The availability of suitable nesting sites-earthen banks where nesting burrows can be excavated-appears critical for the distribution and local abundance of this species. This kingfisher prefers to excavate a nesting burrow near its fishing territory, raising a single brood annually. Burrows may be reused, but site tenacity is weak.

In some regions, human activities such as the digging of sand and gravel pits have created nesting sites that have stimulated population growth and enhanced opportunities for range expansion. Despite this species' diet, environmental contaminants do not seem to have affected its productivity as with other fish-eating birds.

Research on Belted Kingfishers in North America has focused primarily on foraging ecology, responses to environmental pollutants, and nest habitat selection. The diet and feeding behavior of this species are well documented (see Terres 1968, Kelly 1996b, Kelly 1996a, Cairns 1998, Kelly 1998a), and there are related studies of nutritional requirements (Vessel 1978), courtship feeding (Hamel 1976), effects on prey communities (Gotceitas and Godin 1991, Parkhurst et al. 1992, Gotceitas and Godin 1993, Winkelman 1996, Englund and Krupa 2000, Steinmetz et al. 2003a, Steinmetz et al. 2003b), and the relationships between food availability and reproduction (Kelly and Van Horne 1997a, Albano 2000). Kingfishers have also been studied as bio-indicators of environmental toxins, especially mercury contamination (Landrum et al. 1993, Moore et al. 1999a, Lane et al. 2004b, Evers et al. 2005). Finally, the unique burrowing behavior of kingfishers has drawn many to attempt to identify the primary factors associated with preferred nesting habitat (Davis 1982b, Brooks and Davis 1987, Shields and Kelly 1997, Sullivan et al. 2006) and document the use of human-modified landscape features as burrow sites (Hamas 1974, Hopkins 1980, Weber and Miller 1981, Kiviat et al. 1985).

Recommended Citation

Kelly, J. F., E. S. Bridge, and M. J. Hamas (2009). Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.